A rock-solid defence might have provided the foundation for Al Sadd’s AFC Champions League triumph, but the Qataris would still have floundered but for the attacking excellence of Kader Keita and Mamadou Niang.
Although the African duo’s combined tally of four goals would suggest they were less than prolific, each of those strikes proved crucial en route to claiming the Asian crown last month. Niang, who only joined the club in September, opened his account with a late goal against Sepahan that secured passage to the semi-final, then repeated the feat against Suwon Bluewings in the last four. Keita, meanwhile, had suffered a lengthy goal drought since scoring a last-gasp equaliser against Esteghlal in Al Sadd’s group-stage opener, but came good in the final against Jeonbuk Motors, forcing an own goal with a dangerous cross-cum-shot before putting his side ahead with a brilliant volley.
Although the strike partners have contrasting styles of play, Keita and Niang have one thing in common. Both of them enjoyed successful stints in major European leagues - France and Turkey's respectively - before arriving in Doha. As they prepare to embark on a new challenge at the FIFA Club World Cup, Al Sadd’s not-so-secret weapons took time out to speak to FIFA.com.
Reflecting on the club's Asian triumph, Keita said: “I was delighted because it was the first time I had won such a big competition, and the victory enabled us to take part in the Club World Cup. At that point, my first thought was, ‘Japan, here we come!’ I’d played in the UEFA Champions League with Lyon before, but I’d never won the trophy. So I’m very happy to have won the Asian championship and to scored some goals as well. It felt like the whole world was watching us lift the trophy and it was really exciting.”
Though it is only three months since Keita and Niang began to play together, there already seems to be genuine chemistry between them. “I’ve known him for a long time, actually,” Keita explained. “We played in the same league back in France, for Marseille and Lyon. We’re friends, I know his football and he knows my football. We talk all the time about the way we play together. And we don’t have any rivalry between us because we have the same goal of scoring for our team.”
Niang shares this belief that mutual understanding as well as team spirit are central to achieving success. “Our strength comes from the teamwork within the group,” said the Senegal international. “Whenever your team-mate is in a trouble, you can overcome the difficulties by facing them as a unit. That’s our main strength.”
As the Qatari club’s squad is populated mostly by young and inexperienced players, the role of the club’s veterans is likely to become even more important at Japan 2011. Acknowledging this, Keita said: “We have many young players, so I need to give something to them from my experience in Europe. That’s very important.”
Although they face an imposing first test against African champions Esperance on Sunday, the reward for victory could hardly be any greater, with the winners guaranteed a semi-final against the mighty Barcelona. It’s a prospect that leaves both salivating.
“Taking part in this competition is an honour in itself, but playing Barcelona would be a big bonus as they’re a great club and the best in Europe,” said Niang.
Keita added: “It wouldn’t be the first time for me to play against Barça as I’ve met them while playing for Lyon. I’d love to face them again, and it would also be an exciting experience for the youngsters of Al Sadd. The whole tournament should be fantastic for us.”